Drone wars in Afghanistan as critics speak out

From the rubble: Afghans are often caught in the crossfire of US action © Getty Images

Since 2001, the USA has used unmanned drones to target terrorists thousands of miles away. Are these killings effective? Or is the military tactic destroying America’s war aims?

February 4th, 2002: in the USA a CIA team silently observed the man they believed to be the world’s most wanted terrorist. As he walked through the wreckage of a bombed mujahideen base, the Americans gave an order, and the first Predator drone was fired.

The target was killed instantly. But there was a problem: he was not Osama bin Laden, but Daraz Khan, a peasant. He and two friends had been collecting scrap metal when they were obliterated by the unmanned US missile.

Today, drones are essential to America’s military strategy. Hovering above tribal Pakistan and Afghanistan, these unmanned planes monitor suspicious behaviour of potential terrorists. Then, thousands of miles away, US commanders give the order, and a drone launches a deadly missile.

In Pakistan, there have been 283 drone strikes since 2004. Many have been successful, killing the Taliban’s Pakistani leader and notorious Islamist Anwar al Awlaki, among others. But these are stars in a cast of thousands: of the 2,500 Pakistanis killed by drones, just 35 were what the military call ‘high value targets’.

The rest? Officially, the majority have been ‘militants’ – dangerous, if not influential. But the definition is questionable. Evidence for identifying suspects, critics say, is kept so secret that any man killed by a drone might be branded a militant.

Worse, a tragic number of innocent people are also killed. A recent survey estimated that between 474 and 881 civilians, including 200 children, have died in drone attacks since 2004.

The result is grief and anger. A perception that drones murder innocent Pakistanis, experts say, adds to anti-American sentiment – and to the appeal of the terror groups the USA is trying to eradicate. Now, more and more Western academics are branding unmanned missiles counter-productive as well as morally questionable.

In Pakistan, the use of drones is now dropping, having peaked in 2010. But today, there is a new front for the drone wars. As ground forces leave Afghanistan, unmanned planes are taking their place: this year, there have been 447 strikes – more than were launched in Pakistan in six previous years.

Drone ranger

Bad news? Not necessarily, some say. The only way to destroy al Qaeda, after all, is to get rid of its members. And for all their faults, drones are the best way to fulfil that simple and fundamental objective.

But in weeding out extremists, is America jeopardising the aims it is trying to achieve? Fighting terror, many argue, is not about exterminating individual threats, but creating an environment in which extremism cannot flourish. By antagonising the population, drone warfare only exacerbates the problems the US is trying to fight.

You Decide

  1. Are drones an effective means for the USA to achieve its aims?
  2. What should be a government’s bigger priority: protecting the lives of its own citizens, or avoiding the deaths of people in other nations?


  1. Imagine you are an Afghan citizen who lives in an area at risk of drone strikes. Write a diary entry describing how you feel.
  2. Research the technology behind drones. Create a labelled diagram of an unmanned aerial vehicle, with interesting facts and statistics.

Some People Say...

“Drones are the scariest kind of weapon.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This is all very far away.
If they continue to be used, drones could define the future course of the Afghan war – a conflict in which both Europe and America have invested enormous amounts, in both money and human cost. Extremism and instability in Afghanistan – and Pakistan – would mean an increased terror threat all over the world.
What about these drones?
The consequences for international relations might be even more profound. Some experts are very worried that drone technology, which is relatively cheap and allows for attacks to be launched from thousands of miles away, could be adopted by other states, or even terror organisations. Others are more optimistic, and believe it could seriously reduce the civilian casualties of war.

Word Watch

Literally this means groups ‘doing jihad’, or Muslims involved in struggle to follow God’s path. In Afghanistan, the term described a network of groups that mobilised to resist the Soviet presence in the 1970s. Since then it has become a more general description of Islamist resistance groups.
Unmanned planes
Drones were used for surveillance purposes in Afghanistan before 2001: it was not until the terror attacks of 9/11 and the Afghan war that they were armed. The technical definition of a drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), used today for a wide range of non-military purposes. Scientists might use drones to study conditions in difficult-to-reach areas like the Antarctic or inside hurricanes, for example.
Any man
Some critics argue that US officials take a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach to those killed in drone attacks. When Daraz Khan was killed, for example, officials maintained that he was a ‘legitimate’ target: a Pentagon spokesperson said there was ‘no initial indication that these were innocent locals’, while US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described them as ‘something untoward that we needed to make go away’.
A recent survey
Assessing the number of people killed by drone is notoriously difficult. Both the US and Pakistani governments are cagey about the extent of drone attacks, and the Taliban are reluctant to release statistics for fear of appearing weak. And because most attacks take place in tribal, rural areas, journalists find it difficult to safely research and verify facts. The quoted study is a joint effort from Stanford and New York Universities in the United States.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.